Zumar, Iraq - On the outskirts of this northern Iraq city a man stands next to the wreckage of his home, destroyed by Islamic State during fierce clashes with the Iraqi Kurdish military, the Peshmerga.
And he’s not alone: For miles the rubble and debris of houses litter the ground, and charred shops covered in Islamic State graffiti sit silent on the side of what used to be the main road of a bustling city.
On August 2, Zumar and surrounding villages became one of the first Kurdish-controlled areas to fall to Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The Kurds briefly took control of parts of Zumar in September but were pushed out by Islamic State, whose heavy weaponry largely dwarfed the Peshmerga’s light weapons.
The city remained in the insurgents’ hands until October 25, when the Kurdish fighters and coalition airstrikes pushed Islamic State back to the area in and around Mosul.
“Zumar is key to opening the doors to all other areas,” explains Saleh Mirani, the head of the leading Kurdistan Democratic Party office in Zumar. The area is strategic for both Kurdish and Arab Iraqis, he says, because of its large oil reserve, agriculture and water resources.
“I believe the liberation has been a key in boosting the morale of the Peshmerga and at the same time a big damage to the morale of the Islamic State,” says Mirani. Islamic State “is trying very hard to get its hands on this city.”
Key to freeing Yazidis
But a Kurdish victory in Zumar is deemed particularly important because of the city’s proximity to Sinjar, a region of Iraq that became a symbol of Islamic State violence in August when the group forcefully displaced tens of thousands of Yazidis, a vulnerable ethno-religious minority.
Zumar’s proximity to the Sinjar Mountains, where thousands of Yazidis remain trapped by Islamic State, would also facilitate the Peshmerga’s move onto the isolated mountaintops.
Except for 500 Peshmerga who are already there, the Kurds have been unable to reach the besieged Yazidis.
“We haven’t any way to send more Peshmerga,” said Jabar Yawer, chief of staff of the Ministry of Peshmerga. Kurdistan’s lack of helicopters has meant that they have been unable to deploy more help, Yawer explained.
Kurdish Yazidi commander Qassem Darbo was quoted by local media outlet Bas News as saying that retaking Zumar will help the Peshmerga advance into Sinjar, as Zumar is a key road into the city.
“If our international allies hadn’t helped us through this fight, it would have taken much longer,” says KDP’s Mirani. He says Zumar fell because of the Iraqi army’s failure in June, which resulted in Islamic State acquiring weapons against which the Peshmerga struggled to compete.
On Saturday the fighting began at 6 A.M., with the Peshmerga attacking Islamic State on four different fronts and heavy air strikes targeting ISIS vehicles and bases. Kurdish forces took control of Zumar by 4 P.M.
“The Peshmerga were using weapons from our international help,” says Mirani, referring to the West’s transfer of heavy weapons to Kurdistan. He stressed the importance of the air strikes, saying that more of them could immobilize Islamic State.
Proof of the utility of the air strikes is the rubble of what was an ISIS base sitting next to the Kurdish security building. That base was razed by French airstrikes.
According to officials, the bodies of dozens of Islamic State fighters remain under the rubble. Mirani estimates that hundreds of ISIS insurgents lost their lives during the takeover of Zumar while only 22 Peshmerga were killed. “Most of them were killed because of the TNT,” he says.
IEDs, TNT and booby-traps are the dangers faced by security and Peshmerga forces stationed in Zumar and surrounding villages. A labyrinth of unexploded ordnance was strategically placed to wreak havoc among civilians and military personnel.
Officials have warned civilians to stay away until all areas are clear, but while most families have remained in their makeshift shelters in the northern city of Duhok, some have returned in search of their belongings. One family was crushed under their own home when explosives detonated.
Yasser Bashir Ali fled to Duhok with his wife and baby, returning to his home to gather belongings. Ali, 29, and two Peshmerga walked in to his home - and set off a booby-trap that destroyed his house. The two soldiers died in the explosion.
'Arabs betrayed us'
“Arabs destroyed our property; they betrayed us. We can never trust them,” says the young Peshmerga volunteer.
His kind face masks anger as he explains that the home he lost had been paid for through loans. “How can I rebuild it again?” he asks in a voice devoid of hope.
Ali’s mistrust for his Arab neighbors is a common feeling that has been fueled by the barbaric acts of Islamic State’s insurgents. This could ultimately become a problem in Zumar, an area inhabited by Kurds and Arabs.
Two local tribes reside in Zumar, one that allegedly supports ISIS and another that is supposed to be neutral. Asked about the Arab villages around Zumar, Mirani said that those that have remained neutral have been aided by the Peshmerga but others are regarded as Islamic State sympathizers and treated accordingly.
In early October two Peshmerga divisions, in coordination with coalition air strikes, marked another victory on the road to freeing Sinjar, when they defeated Islamic State in the border town of Rabia, about 60 kilometers (36 miles) east of Zumar.
At the time Peshmerga commander Sheikh Ahmad Mohammad told local news outlet Rudaw that securing Rabia would help retake Zumar and Sinjar. While Rabia has been retaken from ISIS, Sinjar is yet to be freed.
If the Kurdish Peshmerga retake Sinjar, it would also serve to restore faith in the Kurdish military following the Iraqi Kurds’ widely criticized retreat from Sinjar in August. Many claim that that defeat led to the mass exodus and killings of the Yazidi population, a minority that the Kurds often regard as one of their own.
At dusk Zumar is peaceful - so peaceful that if it wasn’t for the damage, it might be hard to believe that less than a week ago airstrikes were slamming down on this city and surrounding villages.
But in a swift operation, and with the much-welcomed support of western powers, the Kurdish military won a battle that many see as the start of the liberation of Sinjar.
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